An Ideal Husband (1999)

D: Oliver Parker
S: Rupert Everett, Cate Blanchett

Entertaining filming of Oscar Wilde's stage classic. Rupert Everett (My Best Friend's Wedding) plays the idle bachelor at the turn of the century whose circle of friends includes some of the luminaries of London society such as up and coming politician Jeremy Northam and his wife, Cate Blanchett (Elizabeth, Oscar and Lucinda). When spiteful returned emigrant and former fiancé Julianne Moore threatens Northam with a secret from his past, Everett divides his time between trying to help his friend and his wife (she is also an old flame), romancing Northam's sister Minnie Driver (Good Will Hunting), and trying to fend of Moore's offers of marriage (tinged with threats of blackmail).

The play is concerned with ideas of propriety and convention and ridicules the manners and morays of high society. As with all of Wilde's writing, it is peppered with searing one-liners and quips, many of them at the expense of late nineteenth century English audiences' sense of themselves. It delves into the political corruption which underlies all high-minded and civilised countries, and slyly suggests that only though acknowledging its vices can England enjoy its virtues. Everett's character flaunts his refusal to bow to expectations, and confounds his beleaguered father with deliberate provocations which actually mask a decent person who longs to do the right thing. Wilde's grasp of paradox and hypocrisy drives his drama, but it doesn't prevent him from spinning an uplifting yarn.

The pleasures here are all in the performances. Oliver Parker (Othello) directs by allowing the mechanics of the well-worn plot to go about their business. There are no directorial flourishes or tour-de-force moments which distract from the sparkling wit of the original dialogue (though at one point the characters attend a performance of Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest at which the writer himself appears). The characters grow and deepen as the narrative progresses each according to Wilde's original writing and the intricate acting. Everett is good in the lead, but he is easily matched by his co-stars. Blanchett is particularly interesting as the upright women's issues campaigner who learns that compromise is an inevitable part of life, with Northam cutting a suitably anguished figure as her all-too human husband. Moore does a good job with the English accent, and is perfectly cast as the ice maiden whose mean streak sets the action in motion. Driver is fetching in support, though her part is given less weight than it demands, which tends to weaken her hand.

There is an argument to be made that this is a hybrid of theatre and film with the emphasis on the former. It certainly does little to stretch the medium, or match the mise-en-scène to any thematic concerns. This is often seriously unwise, and can result in boring, unwatchable movies that feel like someone has plonked their camera down in front of the stage and let it run. But Parker has used the basics of cinematic craft to render the story on screen in as unobtrusive a form as possible. It will not expand your knowledge of film, but it will keep you entertained with a classic work of theatre without seeming stagebound, which is itself an achievement. It is also simply worth watching because it is such a good play, and it is performed by a cast you're not likely to see on stage in your local theatre anytime soon.

An Ideal Husband is enjoyable, old fashioned entertainment which may not appeal to everyone, but which provides exactly what you expect.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.